dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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Oregon Could Revive Localism With IP 28

May 27th, 2016 · 1 Comment

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Chances are very good Oregonians will be voting in November whether to assess a gross receipts tax on businesses with sales that exceed $25 million annually. Once all the shouting begins, the subtleties of history will be lost in the background noise. So let’s chat today about business efficiencies, sun-ripened tomatoes, and a pamphlet written in 1837.

Rowland Hill argued in an 1837 tract that guaranteed delivery of any letter between two points for the same prepaid price would increase its popularity. He envisioned a world made smaller and a society joined tighter. He won the argument and England instituted the Penny Post in 1840.

Single price postage didn’t appear in America until after the railroads reached the west coast. Before 1863, letters traveling less than 300 miles could be sent for half price. But since then, we’ve lived in Hill’s world where distance doesn’t matter.

What does this piece of arcane history have to do with Oregon’s proposed business tax? Well, nothing really — at least not directly. That’s why we can think about it only before the din of rhetoric drowns out every tangental detail.

Our “any distance for a single price” mentality made the world feel smaller and more accessible. We can all agree that we’ve now accomplished that. If anything, we may have done it too well.

The United States Postal Service wants to centralize its mail-sorting operation in Portland, trucking every letter sent from Eugene 100 miles north. A letter you write will take two or three days to reach your neighbor, instead of one. But hey — it’s more efficient.

Our produce aisles have zucchini from Morocco, limes from Brazil, and maple syrup from Canada — year round. Amazon will bring almost anything you can imagine to your door in two days. Desktop email replaced mailed letters, until instant messages began appearing on the phones in our pockets.

The world has gotten very small, indeed. Distance doesn’t matter — until it does.

Local companies have gained global access, but also global competition. Whittier Wood Furniture can be sold nationwide, giving good jobs to local people working with wood and wood products that grew in the ground beneath our feet.

But local farmers cannot compete with grocery store prices for sun-ripened tomatoes, even when supply levels slide from abundance to onslaught. Never mind the better taste, or the local roots — the “efficiencies” of factory farming and our sesquicentennial habit of ignoring distance leave us with cheap, tasteless tomatoes. We feed our table-mates but not our neighbors.

That’s where Oregon’s Initiative Petition 28 may represent a tide we can turn. Economic analyses have speculated that its high floor of $25 million in Oregon sales will exempt all but about a thousand corporations from paying the tax. Half of the $3 billion in projected state revenues will come from just 50 mega-firms.

Yes, some prices will be increased to compensate, and some jobs will be automated or eliminated to compensate for lost profits. But when it comes to tomatoes, we’ll all be better off if the wares offered at our farmers’ markets can be priced more competitively.

Legislators say they’ll consider a pre-emptive move that will put in place something smaller than what IP28 has proposed. I don’t believe they will, because Democrats will benefit greatly from having a measure that Bernie Sanders would love on the November ballot. That will get more liberals to vote.

I hope what legislators are really working on is a bill that binds them to devote a third of the revenue from IP 28, if it passes, to local business development initiatives.

IP 28 can revive localism, which is what we’ve lost in Hill’s mechanized, centralized, efficient-but-tasteless world. Will Apple charge a few dollars more for iPads sold in Oregon, to compensate for the tax? Probably not, but boy, if they did, what a great deal that would be for our state.

Imagine every national Apple promotion that mentions price having to add, “except in Oregon.” I’d pay extra for license plates that included those three words as our new state slogan — wouldn’t you?

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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World Comes To Eugene’s Taste Buds

May 20th, 2016 · 1 Comment

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I’ve been telling my friends for twenty years that Eugene will have arrived when it grows up to fit its restaurants. I always believed it would take a biblical generation of 40 years before the quality offered at our finest restaurants didn’t seem out of place here. But Eugene has gotten there in half that time, thanks to development strategies crafted over a decade ago by the University of Oregon and the city of Eugene.

In the late 1990s, the University of Oregon determined that the state’s ongoing divestiture from higher education funding was unlikely to reverse itself, so the university’s leaders set out to make themselves self-sustaining as quickly as possible. Fundraising was accelerated, but another change was in the offing.

Economic analyses showed that in-state tuition was the operation’s loss-leader. Only students from out of state and from outside the country “earned” the institution a “profit.” The wheels of change were accelerated by football fame. The student body became much more diverse. More recently, Lane Community College has also begun recruiting students from greater distances.

It took a while for business owners and landlords to recognize and respond to this trend, but it’s taken a firm hold now. Not very long ago, every new ethnic restaurant was competing for the same small sliver of cosmopolitan diners seeking exotic cuisines. Now there are a dozen cuisines that can rely on a stable group of customers who miss the tastes of home.

Restaurants are like skyscrapers. The first sense they make is never economic. Any entrepreneur who thinks opening a restaurant will be easy because “everybody eats” will learn quickly their mistake. There’s a reason there are no nationwide chains of paid toilets.

If you’re looking to buy yourself a job, clean medical offices or stripe parking lots. You’ll make more money for less aggravation than every restaurateur accepts, and you won’t find yourself working 14-hours days and most weekends. And yet, new restaurants continue to appear.

To cite only the most recent example, the Mediterranean Network Restaurant opened this week on the southwest corner of 18th and Willamette. Alaa Albaadani from Yemen and Yousis Alnaraih from Saudi Arabia have run restaurants before, so this is not their first rodeo — though they may never have been to an actual rodeo.

I asked them why they called it a “network restaurant.”

“Our food is very important to us,” Alaa told me. “We want to share it with people, so they can get to know us, our culture, our people. This will connect us. It will be our network.”

World peace never tasted so good. I have been longing for a certain Egyptian street food. I knew it by another name, but their mejadra tastes just like the koshary I lived on for a month in Cairo. Rice and lentils, spiced with onion, garlic, and tomato — it’s more like the rice bowls served across the street at Café Yumm than anything else you may know.

In fact, I think of the Yumm bowl as Eugene’s indigenous food.

I recently returned from a two-month trip. As I restocked my refrigerator, I noticed a pattern. Toby’s tofu, Yumm sauce (two varieties), Nancy’s yogurt, Emerald Valley Kitchen salsa — these are my comforts of home. I could have added Euphoria chocolate sauce and Pasta Plus pesto, but that would be piling on. They share local roots, but also a certain viscosity. The gastronomy of Tracktown USA runs thick.

I’m not the only one with a locals-only fridge shelf. It was all part of a plan.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy in 2005 unveiled the region’s economic development plan, focused on specific business clusters. One targeted sector for focused attention was natural foods.

Saturday Market this month recognized this niche as fitting its handcraft ethos. Tucked between the food carts, you’ll find a small booth for vendors who make edible art — chocolates, salsa, who-knows-what. What better way to give visitors a flavor of Eugene?

Thanks to food carts, any cuisine can now find its audience here. There’s never been a tastier time to enjoy Eugene.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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… second things first …

May 14th, 2016 · 1 Comment

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The first thing you should know about me is that the second thing doesn’t bother me. And if it bothers you, that also doesn’t bother me.

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Forget Left vs. Right. 2016 is Small vs. Big

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

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As this year’s presidential campaign comes into focus, try to forget the reliable “left versus right” paradigm. A different pattern is emerging, and Oregon’s place in it may be harder to overlook.

At least since Ronald Reagan’s thumping of Jimmy Carter in 1980, the lines between the parties have been clear. Republicans want more muscle abroad, ever-lower taxes at home, with fewer government intrusions and ambitions in between. Democrats have vowed to protect “the little guy” — though no longer limited to “guys” and “little person” now means something else entirely.

The Republicans’ presumptive nominee pays no homage to party orthodoxy. Donald Trump sounds supportive of a higher minimum wage, expanding Obamacare, and Planned Parenthood. He has little interest in foreign policy. He may well run a campaign that positions him to the so-called left of Hillary Clinton, on a variety of issues.

Trump won’t find many issues where he can run to the left of Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic Socialist. And Sanders is still a factor, which is why I believe the paradigm may have shifted and Oregon might matter.

“Left versus right” is so 2008. This year’s campaign is shaping up as “large versus small” — and I’m not talking about glove sizes. Sanders has promised big changes, even if he’s failed to explain how they could be accomplished. Trump — whatever you think about him — would BE a big change.

The mood of the electorate seems attracted to big changes. Clinton’s gender represents a big change for the presidency, but her policies do not. She’s a consummate policy wonk, with a pencil so sharp that she doesn’t dare make any sudden moves. Her numbers add up. Her plans make sense. They’ll work in the real world.

And people don’t like them.

They prefer the flying leap of free college or carpet-bombing ISIS, of the 79-year-old socialist who can count the sweaters he owns or the billionaire who somehow gained a definite article preceding his not-uncommon first name. (Ahem.)

Bernie and The Donald are swashbucklers. They have no interest in defending the status quo. Hillary, on the other hand, is quick with the dagger. She advocates small moves, executed with precision, boring through the details. If she makes it to the White House, history books may well be kind to her, but students will still dread being tested on her chapter.

Oregonians finish voting next Tuesday. In most years, the decisions would already be made by the time we voice our preferences. That may be by design, because it allows us to vote our convictions without commensurate courage. Don’t be surprised if John Kasich does surprisingly well, and Sanders might see his largest margin of victory since Vermont’s vote.

We like the protest vote here, especially after the decision has been made. That gives us the best of both worlds. We can always insist things would have been better, if only others had gone along with us.

If the fall campaign featured a series of televised debates between Sanders and Trump, a large number of Oregon households would renew their cable television packages to watch a contest almost as entertaining as the Chip-Kelly-era Ducks. But it probably won’t turn out that way. It’ll probably be Clinton and Trump on the stage, which sounds only half as interesting.

How can Clinton’s skill at the squeeze bunt match Trump’s and Sanders’ home run swings? Clinton won’t be able to transform herself into a natural entertainer during this campaign season, which is why I hope she chooses Sen. Al Franken as her running mate. But she can help herself even more by enlisting two other legislators to barnstorm the county.

Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi could put on quite a show, promising big changes if both houses of Congress return to the Democratic majorities. (Pop quiz: When was the last time a first-term Democratic president started without full control of Congress? It was Grover Cleveland’s first term in 1884.)

Let them play long-ball against the Republicans, leaving the minutia of governance to the party’s less-than-inspiring leader.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Eugene Street Planning Has Many Twists and Turns

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

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When the Eugene City Council met on Monday, April 14, 2008, they took two notable actions. First, they welcomed their new city manager, Jon Ruiz, who had started earlier that day. They also approved the Crest Drive area street design as recommended by the Crest Drive Community Team, despite testimony from several citizens who were unhappy with it.

Those two actions intersected and collided this past Monday night, when the Eugene City Council voted to kill the proposed South Willamette Special Area Zone plan. Ruiz is still Eugene’s city manager, but his detractors — including at least one city councilor — have been emboldened by the plan’s failures.

One of this year’s crop of mayoral candidates wants to dismantle Eugene’s city manager form of government altogether. Scott Landfield believes full-time elected officials will make city staff more attuned to the citizenry.

The city manager’s duties haven’t changed in the last eight years, but the streets around Crest Drive sure have. The plan approved that evening is now fully built. I contacted a few people who had a hand in the crafting of that plan.

A former city employee recalled only how difficult the work was. Another confessed she remembered little, though she participated in the process, citing that it was “many moons ago.” Each asked that I not use their name. Acrimony lasts longer than planning debate details, which is why I’m steering us down Memory Lane today.

Memory Lane has fewer twists and turns than Crest Drive does today. It’s not hard to see why bicyclists avoid it and firefighters hope they can. Another longtime observer of south Eugene politics put it this way: “Crest Drive is no longer a street; it is a semi-private driveway for the immediate neighborhood.”

If you’re out walking your dog, it’s lovely and bucolic. But if you have to get anywhere in a hurry — or fear somebody else who might — it’s best to just stay away.

In the neighborhood’s defense, they toiled countless hours to design and compromise, and they agreed to be assessed to pay for some of the improvements they requested. Nevertheless, the streets in that neighborhood are now optimized for those who live on them, and less so for anyone who only uses those public streets regularly.

Behind the design was a process, and behind that process was a set of values. One of the highest values in play there was “preserving neighborhood character.” The term they used back in 2008 was “context-sensitive solution process,” but it meant the same thing: “protect what is,” and let others worry about what will be.

Like it or not, Crest Drive is our poster child for citizen-centered planning.

Planners are in this way similar to generals, always fighting the last war. Whatever mistakes were made last time, those are the ones they’re determined not to repeat. And so, the South Willamette Special Area Zone gave city professionals the heavy lifting. Citizen feedback would be an essential element, but balanced against the greater good for the entire city.

Everyone now agrees they overlearned that lesson. All the more reason that we reacquaint ourselves with where that lesson was learned — especially since it’s just a few blocks away, in the same part of town. We must learn lessons from both of these recent planning projects — the one that now won’t happen and the one that did.

Envision Eugene’s work product has been seven overarching community values, shared by all. They are intended to guide all our planning efforts. But those abstract platitudes won’t satisfy any homeowner who feels threatened by four stories of new apartment-dwellers blocking the sun for the backyard tomato patch.

It’s only natural that the homeowner will insist that the city find another solution or use that solution somewhere else. When one side has a tomato patch and the other has a spreadsheet, communication will almost always fail.

Who will mediate these inevitable conflicts between platitude and practice, abstract and tangible, whole and part? For that important piece of this essential community endeavor, we should rely on those who have knocked on our doors to gather our votes.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Do We Elect Trustees or Delegates?

May 6th, 2016 · No Comments

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Republican delegates sent from Oregon to the national party’s summer convention in Cleveland will have less flexibility than most of their colleagues. Those arriving from Pennsylvania will have the most. Looking closely at how the states’ delegate rules differ opens a window into their histories.

Most delegates in Cleveland are bound by their state to honor their pledge on the first ballot. If they were sent by the people to vote for Trump, that obligation usually expires after the first ballots are counted. After that, they can vote for anyone they choose.

Delegates sent from Oregon are bound to their pledge for longer — until the third ballot. Pennsylvanians are barely bound at all. This distinction echoes a controversy that began in Philadelphia in 1787 at the beginning of the Constitutional Convention.

The first question debated inside the Pennsylvania State House was whether its 55 participants should consider themselves delegates or trustees. Some believed themselves to be trustees, bound by honor to vote in every matter as the majority of their constituents would vote.

John Adams in particular insisted this was not only unworkable, but also dishonorable. The trust of the people is essential for governance, but it couldn’t be separated from an additional trust. The trust between representatives would be built over time. And often, over beer. The constituents would have their opportunity to voice their displeasure at the next election. But during deliberations with legislating colleagues, each leader should be allowed — even encouraged — to follow their conscience.

A close reading of the United States Constitution reveals a deep skepticism about “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Only white, male landowners were given the vote. Their votes were counted directly only for the House of Representatives. The Senate, the presidency, and the Supreme Court were each given insulation from the will of the people.

Once the Constitution was completed and signed, a woman at the door asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government he and his colleagues had given the young country. Franklin responded, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.” (Franklin had not yet reached the City Tavern across the street, so he may have betrayed a particular impatience.)

Keeping a republic has not been easy. Secession has been contemplated. Civil war has been endured. But the republic’s greatest threat may be the one most vividly imagined at its start. The final disunity of the states of America may come from direct democracy.

Over the years, America has become more democratic, but with less of the original worries that democratic innovation could go too far. The last peep of that concern may have come a century ago, when a New Yorker visited Oregon.

After losing a race for governor, Frederick M. Davenport took time off from pursuing political office to travel to Oregon, which by that time had gained a reputation as an incubator for direct democracy. He described Oregon as “the native haunt of direct democracy” for the weekly New York magazine “The Outlook” in 1915. He went on:

“A genuine and efficient democracy must have two elements: responsible and representative leadership and the final lodgment of control over that leadership in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the whole people. The perplexities of government and progress should be worked out by responsible representatives.

The characteristic of direct democracy is its deep-seated distrust of representative leadership, and its superior confidence in the instinct, the common sense, and the conscience of the mass of the people. There is no State which I visited in which this modern political tendency can be traced to its conclusion and partial confusion better than in the State of Oregon.”

Since then, Oregon’s citizens have voted on more initiatives and referenda than any other state. Eugene voters must first approve many major highway projects before they can be built. Certain tax incentives and transportation projects have been modified or terminated because of popular votes. Some believe Eugene’s city hall or a railroad quiet zone merit a citywide vote before progressing.

Oregon delegates are first trustees. We place superior confidence in the instinct of the people, for better or for worse.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Random Musings About Who-Knows-What

April 29th, 2016 · 1 Comment

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Fifth Friday Footnotes, Follow-ups and Far-Flung Fripperies:

  • Our angst about growth would lessen if people stopped moving here. If we build a wall, could we get California to pay for it?
  • It’s too bad restaurants seldom have Going Out of Business sales — not for the half-price hash browns, but for the opportunity to say proper good-byes.
  • We don’t strut often or well. With more practice, it would feel less awkward.
  • “Peerless” and “good-looking” should be opposites.
  • I’d like to meet a perfect stranger, assuming I’d be the same to them. My motivation is purely adjectival.
  • I heard from somebody that President Trump will ban shredded cheese. He’ll make America grate again.
  • Pace and perspective shape one another. For example, bicyclists see the town differently than motorists.
  • If you feel too busy, give some of your time away. It will remind you that each hour starts out being yours to use as you choose.
  • Do you think customers are given better service in cultures where “busy” is not part of their word for business?
  • I wonder how a comma could ever necessitate a question mark.
  • I wonder, how could a comma ever necessitate a question mark?
  • In single-family housing, height is often a proxy for class. Tall ceilings or even stairs feel like wasted space that the poor can’t afford.
  • That reminds me of my favorite lyric from Harry Chapin’s little-known musical, “Cotton Patch Gospel”: “He’s waitin’ for a call from the man upstairs, but he lives in a one-story house.”
  • After writing about zoning changes contemplated for parts of south Eugene, I understand better the visceral objection many of my neighbors feel, summed up with a single verb: “loom.”
  • Sharing beauty creates joy.
  • Algebra’s getting a bad name because algebra has a bad name. Call it “problem-solving” and the opposition melts away.
  • Conventional wisdom among political consultants says it’s rarely a good idea to convey a candidate’s political leanings on lawn signs. I notice only one local candidate has followed that practice. About the others, did they not receive that advice, or did they not accept it?
  • Just three generations ago, Americans were taller than people from almost every other country. Now we’re somewhere in the middle. That may be because the middle is getting larger — at least our middles are.
  • One under-appreciated aspect of the Panama Papers, which exposed thousands of off-shore tax havens: Hundreds of journalists, often working for competing companies, worked on the story with little oversight for over a year without a single leak.
  • Falling in love is like trying to relax — the harder you try, the harder it becomes.
  • We’re bad at endings because we refuse to practice.
  • Who got the last hairdo?

==
We interrupt this jaunt of jocularity to say, God bless our own Jack Roberts. This week, he gave the lie to three dishonest tropes in one fell swoop.

He refused to resign to avoid being fired. He refused to claim he wanted to spend more time with his family. And he detailed personnel issues as the probable cause of his termination, when most others would hide behind so-called confidentiality concerns.

Following Richard Lariviere’s unceremonious end as University of Oregon’s president, Eugene’s message to Salem: You can fire us, but you cannot frighten us.
==

  • If America really loved freedom, wouldn’t we be replacing stop signs with yield signs, instead of always the other way around?
  • We can forgive the know-it-all if the “all” in question is more than we originally knew.
  • You haven’t heard the term “benefit cliff,” but you will soon. It’s not good news.
  • We could help the addicts among us by not co-opting their terminology to describe our bad habits.
  • College once was the first chapter of adulthood. It’s become instead the last chapter of adolescence.
  • Neglect is often rejection with less courage.
  • Nobody else seems bothered when extroverts use reserved parking spaces.
  • The new Scholastic Aptitude Test take no longer penalizes wrong answers more than blanks. Lesson: take a guess, because doing something is usually better than doing nothing. (Can we get that message to the United States Congress?)
  • Trump l’oeil: where an artist creates an illusion of depth by drawing clear lines pointed toward an invented horizon.
  • A few words that lack any imagination: fireplace, antifreeze, refund, deodorant, Oldsmobile.
  • I bought a bottle of non-aspirin, just for the surprise of it. Inside could have been literally anything, except aspirin. I was disappointed. It should have been labeled Almost Aspirin.
  • While you weren’t watching, ice cube tray designers have made amazing technological strides.

==
Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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I Have a Problem With “No Problem”

April 22nd, 2016 · 14 Comments

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I have a problem with “No problem.”

“Thank you” and its variants are as old as language itself. Acknowledging and appreciating even the smallest exchange is part of the social lubricant that makes societies spin. Human transactions that are not anonymous have seldom been soulless.

“Thank you” affirms an emotional dimension to the simplest act, giving the actor an intangible token. Each good action, properly lubricated, makes subsequent good actions easier and more likely.

But what then comes next? Indo-European tradition offers two responses, dividing itself roughly in half. Southern cultures favored versions of Spanish “de nada” or Italian “di niente.” Each means, literally, “it’s nothing.”

Meanwhile, northern climes gravitated over centuries toward “you’re welcome” or the Germans’ “gern geschehen” — literally, “my pleasure.” “Willkommen” was German before it became English. Some linguists believe its oldest and first version meant, “Very well, come in.” Phrases are like nails — hit them often and they tend to shorten. “Welcome” entered our vocabulary — and the doormat industry was born.

There’s an overly simple explanation for this south/north division, but it may be partly true. People developed the habit of inviting people indoors to acknowledge appreciation, but only where it was cold outside. In places where the weather was warm and hardships may have been less physical, the deprecating “it’s nothing” made more sense.

Life has gotten easier over the last century. Combustion engines and Gore-Tex have made the cold less fearsome. ChapStick and Kleenex have made it less painful. Life conditions are more temperate now, even if the weather is not. When progress is made, language adapts.

But “no problem” overlearns the lesson.

Remember that this everyday courtesy begins with gratitude. Whether it’s for the smile, or the service, or simply for returning the correct change — a small expression of thanks has been offered, hoping to increase the frequency of similar actions.

“You’re welcome” or “my pleasure” returns the kindness with another kindness. If the opportunity repeated itself, the outcome would be the same. Even when the world seems cold, hospitality is available — “well, come in.”

Just as the thanks is meant to acknowledge the original act and affirm its actor, the response affirms the thanker — they’re worth the effort, the act was no fluke. A virtuous cycle of gratitude and affirmation has begun.

Compare that with the prevalent southern response. The originating actor can diminish (“it’s nothing,” “don’t mention it,”) or deny (“no trouble,” “no sweat”). But at least those responses don’t divert the attention from the original kindness.

“No problem” extends the denial response by changing its terms.

The gratitude was for the effort, the exchange, the exertion. If the reply insists there’s not a problem, it’s fair to wonder how a problem got added to this social equation. Why would you tell me it wasn’t a problem, unless it almost was — or might be, next time?

Consider the visceral, if not-quite-rational, response to “no problem.”

“Grateful as I may be, I’d like to avert any future problem for you, if I can. We might both be better off if I did my next exchange with somebody else — or, better yet, if I avoided any exchange at all. You know, just to be certain that there’s no problem.”

My hunch is that “no problem” may have been an adaptation of “no sweat.” Beatniks in the 1960s adopted “no sweat” as their go-to response. The war they were fighting over draft deferments and other upper-class entitlements was slowly lost and then forgotten.

Everybody now wants those upper class privileges, which include not sweating. In fact, sweat itself could now be seen as a problem. So “no sweat” became “no problem,” after stopping briefly at the surfer-dude’s “no worries.”

But there’s also this. “No problem” sounds suspiciously like a one-size-fits-all response — the tube socks of daily courtesy. But just like tube socks, they never fit well.

However inexact the response might be, it offers efficiency. Why learn one response to “thank you” and another to “I’m sorry,” when “no problem” can work for both?

The problem is, it works for neither.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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A Carbon Tax That’s Genuinely Revenue-Neutral

April 18th, 2016 · No Comments

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If there was a calendar of oxymorons, today would read, “Happy Tax Day!” When your accountant tells you there will be no additional taxes due, it means one of two things. Either the government kept more than its share of your earnings or you didn’t earn enough to merit their attention. It’s good news! It’s bad news! Happy Tax Day!

It’s like when a doctor reports on exploratory tests: “I’m happy to inform you, the results are negative.” Learning there’s nothing in there can be good news — anytime when it’s your body, but only for one day when it’s your cupboard of taxable earnings.

Tax is seldom the topic of choice among free adults, unless preceded by the modifier “too much.” We’d rather not think about taxes, thank you very much. One day every year is more than enough, but today is that day.

For that reason — and really, no other — let’s discuss how we might cure ourselves of our carbon addiction without bloating the government.

Most carbon tax proposals promise they are revenue neutral, but none suggest that each consumer would pay no more and no less for what they consume. That would produce no behavioral change, which is what any carbon tax is hoping to accomplish. But there is a way to change behavior without actually taking people’s money. Simply holding it for a little while is enough.

Researchers have shown that people respond very differently, depending on the circumstances, to identical economic impacts. In the most famous experiment, a person considers buying a ticket to a Broadway show for $40, then learns he has $40 less in his wallet than he expected. Almost everyone (88 percent) still buys the ticket.

In the second scenario, the $40 ticket is purchased, then lost — so the same value is subtracted from the vacation budget, but this time the value is emotionally attached to the show. Fewer than half (46 percent) buy a replacement ticket, even though the economics are exactly the same.

My carbon tax proposal would use this psychological anomaly, but in reverse. A carbon tax would be paid at the pump, but then refunded in full as an income tax credit. The check mailed to each of us would be based on recorded purchases throughout the previous year.

Even if we know we’ll get the money back, we’ll still feel a new pain when we’re buying stuff that’s damaging the planet. We’ll hesitate at precisely the moment when the planetary harm occurs, even though the money will be refunded to us.

If every American received their windfall check on Earth Day (April 22), the choices those checks represent — past and future — would be impossible to avoid. Imagine how many environmental groups would gear up to help people choose how to spend their refund on that day.

For the first time, every American would know how much their purchases have contributed to this environmental problem. What they choose to do about it would be entirely up to them.

If government leaders wanted to, they could shape those choices. Simply publishing the amount collected and then rebated each year would give the conversation a new and very personal data point. Everyone would know if they are consuming more or less than their neighbors. Nationwide consumption would be tracked, year to year.

Environmental organizations — or the government itself — could set up annuity-style investment funds for consumers. The pitch would go like this: “You can have every penny we collected from your carbon-based purchases mailed to you this April. Or, if you’d prefer, we’ll invest that money and return to you a check for twice that amount in 20 years, or triple the amount in 30. If you die before the investment matures, payment will be made instead to your heirs, according to your wishes.”

We’d be giving this generation the choice and the means to help the next generation adapt to whatever planetary changes may result from our habits of consumption.

If economists have learned anything over the past 50 years, it’s that nothing drives innovation and efficiency better than informed consumers — even if the test results are positively negative.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Zoning Plan Won’t Force Anyone

April 15th, 2016 · No Comments

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The red and white lawn signs have a simple message: “STOP FORCED REZONING!” Three words, five syllables, all caps, ending with an exclamation point. There’s not room on a lawn sign to address with any subtlety what changes the city’s planners have contemplated for the South Willamette Special Area Zone.

The signs point to a website (www.swneugene.org), where much more detail can be found, but casual observers may be satisfied with those five syllables. All sides of the controversy must agree that a fuller discussion is necessary. Although an op-ed essay provides only slightly more space than a lawn sign, let us begin.

REZONING – The changes being proposed concern the zoning classification of 474 properties, covering 122 acres centered on Willamette Street from 22nd and 33rd Avenues. Not all rezonings are created equal. The reclassification being proposed for these properties is what people call “upzoning.”

Rezoning is when your property was zoned for A, but now it’s zoned for B. Upzoning is where properties that were zoned to allow A will now be zoned to allow both B and A. Think of it like this. You bought a snowblower. You learn later that the same machine can be used as a rototiller. It’s no less of a snowblower for you every winter, and nobody will make you turn dirt with it in the spring. But now you know it can do that if you want it to.

None of the single-family homes identified would be forbidden from residential use. Tax assessments won’t change, unless the owner converts the property to a different use. Everything can stay exactly the same, if that’s what each property owner chooses. Home improvements would still be allowed, so long as any expansion amounts to less than 30 percent of the structure.

FORCED – The proposed changes would add new options, but nobody is being forced to do anything. Current owners have more constraints now than they would if the changes were adopted. As things currently stand, owners are forced to stay the same and not change what they do with their land.

If you go to the movie theater, you buy a ticket and you choose your seat. If somebody sits near you with popcorn, you’re not allowed to ask them to move because you don’t like the smell.

You might have chosen that row of seats because there were no popcorn eaters, just as you bought a house on a quiet residential street. But in each instance, you only paid for the small portion you can control. Selling your house is much harder than finding a different theater seat, but any changes in your neighborhood will not happen overnight — and they might not end up being as bad as you expect.

STOP – This insinuates there’s a “GO” somewhere. City staff considers the proposal’s status as “on a time out.” There is no current plan to bring the issue to the Eugene City Council, where decisions will ultimately be made.

Maybe you can stop something that’s already paused, but the effect of the change hardly merits an exclamation point. The city’s direct role will always be minimal. The city owns very little property in the affected area. No properties are targeted to be razed. No special tax breaks are being considered.

How the area around 29th Avenue and Willamette Street grows and changes slowly over time will be up to the people who have invested their money and pride to make it their home or where they do their business.

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I’m not suggesting the specifics of the proposed Special Area Zone for South Willamette are perfect — far from it. Defining setbacks, protecting viewscapes, and preventing any caverns of hardscape monotony can all be improved.

Residents and property owners in and near the area can improve on the work the city has done so far, if or when that discussion resumes. And if the hope is that this plan provides a template for thoughtful improvements across the city, everyone will be grateful for conversations much deeper than any five syllables — or these 700 words in response — can convey.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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